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Teen and her family help others after turbulent times

| Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, 1:09 p.m.
Emma Paulini, left, 18, and her sister, Helen Paulini, 16.
Emma Paulini, left, 18, and her sister, Helen Paulini, 16.

Helen Paulini, 16, and her sister, Emma, 18, spent a week volunteering at Camp Sunshine in early August before returning for their junior and senior years at the Fox Chapel Area High School.

Joining with parents, Ann and Manfred, the girls gave up a week to help families that have a child with a life-threatening illness.

For a decade, the Paulini family has gone to Casco, Maine, for the week devoted to families with children affected by cancer. Camp Sunshine devotes other weeks to groups such as surviving families of 911 victims.

For the Paulinis, the personal relationships make the camp memorable.

“I really love the connections with the counselors and making friends in such a short amount of time,” says Helen.

The junior was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, soft-tissue cancer, when she was a toddler. As an infant she would cry whenever her arm was touched. Helen, along with her sister, Emma, and mother Ann, went to Boston for an intensive surgical procedure.

Since then, the Paulini family has gone to the camp in Casco and enjoyed canoeing on Lake Sebago, doing arts and crafts, eating good food and having fun. For cancer patients and siblings it's a time to be young.

Last year, Helen was declared cancer-free after grueling treatments and follow-up appointments.

This year, Helen was the counselor in the Tot Lot, devoted to the 3- to 5-year-olds. When Helen first visited Camp Sunshine, she was a 5-year-old in the Tot Lot.

“At camp they do a really good job to let everyone fit in. They acknowledge (cancer) affects every single member of the family,” Helen says.

Going back as volunteers, the Paulinis help others. While Helen and Emma were camp counselors, their parents joined the adult discussion group. To many, the Paulinis give hope to a future recovery.

Last year, Helen wrote an application essay for an Emperor Science Award. She was among the 100 chosen out of 1,200 who were given a chance to work in a lab. For eight weeks Helen worked on molecular imaging and radiography with Dr. Carolyn Anderson of UPMC.

“The summer project was very fitting for me because cancer research has had a major impact on my life,” Helen says.

She enjoyed the crossover from her ninth-grade biology class to real-life application in the lab.

“I learned new stuff and added more layers to the knowledge I have. It's good to have classroom-style teaching so you know the basics. Hands-on is easier to learn and you want to know more,” Helen says.

As she takes on her junior year and sister Emma begins her senior year after a summer going to school in Germany, both sisters expect a busy year.

Emma, along with taking advanced classes, is editor-in-chief for the school literary and arts class.

Helen is captain of the Fox Chapel Area crew team. The young woman sees rowing as a way to help her to improve “focusing on teammates and being in sync” and to learn to “pull stronger and improve technique.”

Perhaps rowing is a good metaphor for families: relying on teamwork, while becoming powerful individuals.

Sharon Drake is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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